LEADING ARTICLE : The struggle for meaning

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The Independent Online
NOTHING, absolutely nothing, prepared us for Dunblane. Michael Ryan's random shooting spree in Hungerford; the perverted crimes of Fred and Rosemary West in their Cromwell Street cellar; the murder of a toddler on Merseyside by 10-year-olds; the stabbing of a headmaster at his own school gate - these acts seemed ghastly enough, straining credulity, emotion, vocabulary to its limits. But when a middle-aged man walks into a school and opens fire on children so young: that forces us to alter our mental landscapes once more, to absorb new possibilities about the lengths to which human beings can go. It is as if some malign, supernatural impresario were trying to find new, more ingenious ways to astonish and horrify us. And, in other times and other places, this would have presented no difficulty: Thomas Hamilton, people would say, was possessed by the Devil or by evil spirits and, in any case, God moved in mysterious ways, testing our faith in preparation for eternal bliss. We, the heirs of the Enlightenment, demand reasons and solutions. The Devil will not do, even for five-year- olds who ask questions.

In the first, numbing hours after the massacre, some commentators suggested that we had best treat the event as some kind of natural disaster, like an earthquake, flood or hurricane. They forget that the modern mind (starting with Voltaire and the Lisbon earthquake of 1755) cannot accept even natural disasters. We demand that buildings be earthquake-proof, that forecasters give warning of hurricanes. For floods, we blame people who chop down trees or straighten out rivers. If Voltaire could not accept an earthquake, we certainly cannot accept the deliberate shooting of innocent children. Those of religious faith can seek solace in prayer. The agnostic mind must search for explanation and solution; otherwise, it feels itself to be cold and indifferent. The solutions may be embraced, not because they offer any certainty, or even probability, that such crimes may be prevented in future, but because they are a way of honouring and remembering the dead.

THE TEMPTATION is to find, name and expose the guilty men and women. Why was Hamilton not locked away? Who granted him a licence to hold guns? Yet here was a man who had never been charged with a criminal offence. Nor, so far as we know, had he ever been referred for psychiatric help. Perhaps, despite the lack of direct evidence of molestation, more should have been done to keep him away from young boys. But it is hard to see how this could have averted the Dunblane shootings; on the contrary, it seems that Hamilton was prompted to act precisely because the authorities had so often frustrated his attempts to run boys' clubs. Perhaps more questions should have been asked about his suitability to hold firearms certificates. But on what grounds could anybody have refused them? That he was an oddball, who plastered the walls of his home with pictures of boys in swimming trunks? These facts, even if known, were not, under any normal rules of natural justice, sufficient reasons for denying certificates. Fewer than 1 per cent of the 13,700 applications in 1994 were refused; Hamilton would have appealed and, given his record in taking on authority, would almost certainly have won.

The questions, then, should be about whether a supposedly civilised, democratic society should allow private citizens to hold guns in any circumstances. The defenders of private guns argue that there is no correlation between the degree of regulation and the extent of violent crime: in Britain, for example, the criminal use of guns has actually increased since regulations were tightened in the wake of Hungerford. All this proves is that regulation does not work; however tightly the rules are framed, some people will get round them. A virtual ban, on the other hand, might work, as it seems to in Japan, which has about half as many gun murders annually as Britain with twice the population.

Guns would not be eliminated if a ban were introduced; in Britain, the number of those officially licensed is far exceeded by those in illegal circulation. But they must all at some point have been legal guns. The balance of probability is that a ban would eventually lead to a reduction. If some essential human liberty were involved, the evidence might need to be more carefully weighed. But it is hard to put owning a gun into this category. No doubt some people get harmless pleasure from target shooting. But what exactly do they enjoy: handling the gun or aiming at the target? If merely (as one hopes) the latter, they can surely make do with lasers or other electronic devices.

WE MUST still ask the most difficult question of all. What is it about our world that impels men such as Thomas Hamilton to go on random, apparently motiveless killing sprees? This is a new kind of crime, not much more than a decade old, and guns were available long before its emergence.

We live in a culture of violence - a violence to which we have become desensitised because of its extent and extremity in films and television. Here, the modern, liberal mind is strangely resistant to cause and effect. It quotes psychological experiments and observes that people do not "feel" more violent after they have been shown a violent film or video. Yet millions of pounds are spent annually on advertising and the entire media industry strains over presentation, using music, visual effects, camera-lighting, to put audiences in the right mood. How can we possibly believe that the film shoot-out never has an effect? We like to think that only inadequate people resort to violence. Switch on the television and we receive completely the opposite message: violent people are exciting, glamorous, powerful. If there is no other way you can make your mark on the world, violence will turn you into a somebody, even if you become a dead somebody in the process. There can be no certainty that censorship, repugnant in any case to the liberal mind, would significantly reduce violent crime. Nevertheless, somebody in a video distributor's office knew instinctively last week that now is not the time to release Natural Born Killers. We should ponder that lesson and ask, once again, if the freedom to make and watch so much violence is really essential.

Today, many people will observe a minute's silence for the children of Dunblane and their teacher. That will be a fitting memorial but it will not be enough. In our age, when we strive to understand the beginnings of time and the limits of the Universe, we must surely try to comprehend what happened in our own country last week and how we can prevent it happening again. We may get it wrong, but we owe it to those who died.